The Roman author Gaius Plinius Secundus (23 AD - 25 August 79 AD) is usually referred to in English as Pliny, or as Pliny the Elder to distinguish him from his nephew Pliny the Younger 
. He is best known for his only surviving work, the encyclopedic 37 volume Naturalis Historia
), written in Latin and published around 77-79 AD, which he dedicated to the newly-crowned emperor Titus (reigned 79-81 AD). This influential work remains an important source for scholars of the ancient history of science and culture.
Pliny the Elder was a biographer, historian, naturalist and natural philosopher, as well as a lawyer, provincial governor and army and naval commander of the early Roman Empire, and a personal friend of Emperor Vespasian (reigned 69-79 AD) and his son and successor Titus. Born in Novum Comum (Como, northern Italy), he was the son of Gaius Plinius Celer, a member of the equestrian order of equites (knights), and his wife Marcella. He never married and had no children. In his will he adopted his nephew, Pliny the Younger, who inherited his estate and considerable wealth.
After his education in Rome, Pliny served as an infantry and cavalry officer in Germania during the reigns of Claudius (41-54 AD) and Nero (54-68 AD), and wrote De jaculatione equestri
(Throwing the javelin from horseback
), a treatise on the use of the javelin by cavalry. On his return to Rome, around 56-59 AD, he practised as a lawyer and wrote a two-volume biography of his former commander and patron Publius Pomponius Secundus (a poet and author of tragedies, and a brother-in-law of Caligula), and Bella Germaniae
(History of the German Wars
) in twenty volumes, which was used as a source by the historians Tacitus and Suetonius.
During Nero's "reign of terror", his deposition in 68 AD and the consequent civil war (the Year of the Four Emperors, 69 AD), Pliny kept a low profile, held no public office and wrote on politically safe subjects such as a three-volume educational manual on rhetoric, Studiosus
, later divided into six books because of its length), and an eight-volume work on grammar, Dubii sermonis
(On doubtful phraseology
or Ambiguity in language
). None of these works have survived.
When Vespasian became emperor Pliny was appointed as a procurator (governor) of a number of imperial provinces. The number (perhaps four) and locations of his procuratorships are uncertain, but he is known to have governed in Hispania Tarraconensis (northern and eastern Spain) 
, and perhaps Gallia Narbonensis (southeastern France), Africa (north Africa) and Gallia Belgica (Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands).
During this period Pliny also added thirty one books to the unfinished Histories
by Aufidius Bassus 
. He did not publish this work, leaving it, as he says in the preface to the Natural History
, to his heir Pliny the Younger. He claims he did this to avoid the accusation of ambition, but may have feared that it was too politically controversial.
He probably returned to Rome in 75 or 76 AD, and is thought to have published the first version of the first ten books of the Natural History
in 77 AD. He was busy enlarging and revising the work when he was appointed as prefect (commander or admiral) of the fleet at Misenum (Cape Miseno), the largest base of the Roman navy, at the northwest end of the Bay of Naples.
According to the letters of Pliny the Younger (see note below
), he died in his 56th year during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on 25 August 79 AD, which destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. He had been staying with his sister and nephew at Misenum, and was preparing to sail to investigate the eruption when he received a plea for help from a friend named Rectina, who with her family was trapped by the catastrophe at their villa at Stabiae, near Pompeii. During the rescue attempt the wind prevented his ship leaving the shore, and he is said to have died as a result of volcanic fumes, although his companions survived.
The final version of the Natural History
was published after his death by Pliny the Younger. It is a vast work and a wide-ranging attempt to provide a comprehensive record of contemporary knowledge of the natural world, its resources and their exploitation by humans. Pliny claimed to have been the first Roman to have written such an encyclopedia, and such comprehensive works had previously only been attempted by Greeks.
The fields of natural sciences discussed by Pliny include botany, zoology, anthropology, human physiology, astronomy, geography, geology and mineralogy. He also describes how natural resources 
such as water, animals, plants, wood, stone and metals are exploited in agriculture, medicine, mining, engineering, building and art. His mentions of ancient painters, sculptors and architects and their works continue to provide one of the most extensive ancient sources (along with Vitruvius
) of information and debate - and often consternation - for historians of Greek and Roman art.
His travels around parts of the empire on his official duties provided him with material for his writing, and several accounts of phenomena, locations, buildings, artworks and events in the Natural History
, such as a solar eclipse in Campania in 59 AD (Natural History
, Book 2, chapter 72), are thought to be first-hand accounts based on his own experiences and observations. However, most of the information in the work is based on books by several earlier authors.
Although the Natural History
includes historical surveys of human activities such as sculpture and painting, it is not primarily a work of history. The word "history" in the title is often seen to mean enquiry, in the same way as the Greek title of the Histories
also originally meant Enquiries
The work has survived in around 200 Medieval manuscripts, the earliest dating from the 8th or 9th century, although some passages and abstracts appeared in works from as early as the 3rd century. They contain many errors, corruptions and alterations made by copyists, but no definitive version considered as closest to the original has been identified. The first printed edition was published in Venice in 1469 by Johann and Wendelin of Speyer.
There is no known surviving ancient portrait of Pliny.